This Usually Environmentally Friendly Task May Actually Hurt Mother Nature

It’s no surprise that most people believe planting trees is automatically good for the environment. After all, what could be greener or more natural than flourishing foliage and good, strong trunks? Trees also require carbon to grow, meaning that they remove the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the air as they develop. However, some commercial forests are now causing other environmental issues — particularly air and water pollution — due to unnatural planting and mismanagement.

Image by jc.winkler via Flickr

Recently, a study was released about tree farms in Japan that calls into question how beneficial they are for the environment. Cedar and cypress tree farms were planted in the 1950s and ’60s. However, these woods have become less important within the Japanese economy over time, and due to commercial pressures, the plantations have not been carefully managed.

They are now generally overcrowded, with aging, slow-growing trees and little to no natural undergrowth. This means that the needles and other debris the trees shed, which contain large quantities of nitrogen, have nothing to fertilize. The nitrogen then builds up in the soil until it is washed away by the rains. At that point, it contaminates local bodies of water, causing algae build up and smothering other life forms.

This is not the only issue with densely planted commercial forests, however. All trees emit volatile organic compounds, and obviously, the more trees in one spot, the more compounds are concentrated. When these VOCs combine with human-caused fossil-fuel pollutants, such as exhaust fumes, they form dangerous combinations such as methane and ozone, which are hazardous and known to contribute to climate change.

It seems that commercial planting of trees, unless strictly monitored and regulated, can potentially cause more environmental problems than it solves. Perhaps one answer is to nurture natural tree concentrations, such as those found in rainforests, that support biodiversity and create their own balanced ecosystems.

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